Archive for January, 2014

Ideas, always ideas

January 24, 2014

As I mentioned earlier I am teaching a Python course this semester.  Since I could not spell Python three months ago I am learning it on the fly as I teach it.  Not an optimal system but it works.  As I am reading the textbook (‘Think Python’ by Allen Downey) I am writing lecture notes into a Word document.  The usual “things I want to talk about today” notes.  I then print the notes and use them as a guide during the class.  (I have a tendency to hop around if I do not have a guide.)   As I use the notes I write comments to myself on the hard copy.  Things like “end of day 1”, “move this topic here”, “expand on this” and so on.  This is all and fine except I then have to print the notes again with the revisions, and some of the comments I do not want typed, I just want the hand written because they may change or they are just arrows.  So I sits and thinks (always dangerous).  What I need is a large tablet, a stylus and software that lets me write on a Word document.  The large tablet because I am blinder than a bat and the stylus so the things I note down go where I want them.  (Writing with a finger just does not work, it is unnatural and the finger is too large.)  I think Inking with Word should do the trick for software.  This combination will allow me to use the tablet as my lecture notes “binder” and allow me to make the changes easily.  It will also store the annotation I make to the document.  Inking has some issues, one of which is it does not come by default with Office 2007 (the version the school uses) but I have managed to get it working with some trickery.  I actually have some old Fijutsu swivel top laptops to try this on.  They are heavy and slow but we own them which is a big plus, and they have a stylus.

I have always been resistant to ebooks because I cannot write in them.  I am a terrible book doodler.  I want to highlight, circle, draw arrows, and scribble in the margins.  I want the kids to be able to doodle in their books and for some reason the school does not like kids doodling in $100 text books.  I printed a hardcopy of the book for each kid.  Lots of paper.  The glitch with doodling in ebooks is the format the ebook is in.  “Think Python” is a pdf.  I do not know how to write on and save the writing on a pdf.  Converting pdfs to Word docs does not work, all sorts of strange things happen.  More thinking required here.

Alfred Thompson’s last blog had to do with using technology to teach with.  There are sometimes just so many glitches to overcome (pdf ebooks for example) that it is not worth the trouble but other times there are things out there that we should be able to do that would be so sweet if we could do them easily.  The tablet idea I want to try I think has possibilities for what I want, but I can buy a pretty good Windows Pro laptop for $400 while an equivalent tablet is $900.  A laptop with a touch screen is an option but that adds 20% to the price.  This puts a crimp in some of these teaching with technology ideas.   When you want to buy 20 or 30 of the things on a low income private school budget that difference is very important.  The iPad is a solution but switching from one platform to another and dealing with software conversions (something iPadish to Word) gets to be a pain.  One of the kids has a Surface RT.  I am going to have to borrow the thing from him.

Problem solving, always problem solving.  I love this job.

The Glory of being a School Tech

January 17, 2014

Ah yes.  The casual life of the tech guy.  It is finals week here.  Now what is the second worst thing that can happen during finals week?  The worst thing by far is if the copy machine were to die.  The second worst is the grading software dies.  It died.  The server actually croaked.  I did some updates, did a restart and it would not restart.  A bios error was all that would appear on the monitor.  A little Googling (21st Century Skill) and the solution is to replace the mother board.  Bad, real bad.  BUT it just so happened I had an identical (well almost) server sitting idle right next to the dead SOB.  Swap the drives and the controller and I should be back in business.  The “almost” involved two hours of “why won’t this @#$%^ thing talk to the internet?”  It is back.  I am happy.  The teachers are happy.  The principals are happy.  All is good with the world.  The councilor is not so happy because he could not print the semester 2 schedules for next week.  The kids will come in Tuesday (no school Monday) not knowing where to go.  Oh yes, this is all right after I made a change in the grade software that killed all parent and student login passwords.  Those all have to be redone one at a time.

I learned a lot today.  Now if I can just remember it for next time something like this happens.

Now I have to gather some chewing gum, some baling wire and some duct tape so I can fix the dead server and get another 10 years out of it.

New Year’s resolutions they are not

January 1, 2014

This is the time when I should be writing my New Year’s resolutions.  Too bad I do not do resolutions.  It would make life so easy if I was able to make some kind of promise to myself and keep it all year.  Too many years of experience have taught me that does not work.  Bummer.  So I make a list of things I want to try to do or at least things I want to keep an eye on.  These should be enough to keep me busy.

  1. Take notes on how I present my initial Python course.

I need to keep track on what and how I teach this course.  Using a book is all fine and dandy but I like to diverge when I see a project that will interest the kids.  The book I plan to use is a bit short on fun exercises so I will have to improvise a bit.  I need to keep on track to reach the course goals but still keep the kids interested in the course.  I need to note what worked and what did not so next time I will not repeat the same mistakes.

  1. Make my Corona course look like the Python course.

Eventually I want to eliminate the Python course completely.  I think I can teach the exact same things in Corona and attract more students with the app writing carrot.  Python is a perfectly good teaching language but I believe I can reach the exact same goals with a lot more fun with Corona.  If programming is not fun why do it?  “Because it teaches problem solving skills” just does not work with the average 16 year old.  It sure as heck will not tempt them into my programming elective course.  Corona has a bit more overhead so I am in no rush to eliminate the Python.  I have to see how things work out.

  1. Change my programming teaching methodology.

Maybe “change” is not the right word.  This year I am going to require the kids take notes sort of.  I am going to have them build their own Cliff’s Notes of the textbook.  For each chapter they will be required to compile the important terms, syntax and whatever from each chapter.  I figure this note taking would be a good aid to retention.  It will also help with the “where did I see that” problem.  I have been doing this myself as I work through the textbook.  With my memory I should have been doing this for years.  Typically my classes are project based; no tests, no quizzes.  I have to come up with some tests and quizzes to meet the dual credit requirement of the University.

  1. Get the high school on a 1-1 laptop program.

The kids need access to the power of a laptop in almost every class now.  I have about a half classroom set of laptops that are constantly being used and the demand from the teachers is going up.  There are a lot of things that have to happen to get a 1-1 to work.  I think the biggest thing is getting the kids to take care of their own hardware.  They are whizzes on apps but if the littlest thing goes haywire they do not have a clue how to troubleshoot their own gear.  The 1-1 program has two aspects, one is the availability of the laptop in the classroom, and the other is teaching the kids how to use the technology when things are not working perfectly.  There is no two ways about it, knowing how to use technology is a 21st Century Skill.

  1. Stay in shape through the winter.

This can be hard to do.  I hate the gym and I am a hot weather runner.  I need to bite the bullet in both cases; hit the gym and run in the cold.  My gym has an indoor track but 8 laps to the mile can get a bit boring.  In the summer there is no problem.  I mountain bike a lot and I run a lot.  I used to be able to get back in shape in the spring rather quickly.  Age, for some odd reason, has effected that recovery time.  I have a half marathon on February 22 (cold!), an 8 hr adventure race in April, a half marathon in July and two weeks later a 50 mile mountain bike race.  No time to slack off.  I usually do a full marathon in July but I do not think 2 weeks is enough recovery time for the bike race.  Last year the bike race took me 10 hours to finish.  I want to get that down to 7 hours.  If it comes down to it I will not do the half marathon.  The bike race is a lot more challenging and a lot more fun.  Good winter conditioning will be critical for a successful summer.